Emphasizing Core Value: Strategies to Enhance Your District’s Worth

Robert Feirsen, Ph.D. and Catherine Knight, Ph.D.
Robert Feirsen, Ph.D. and Catherine Knight, Ph.D.

Failing schools, concerns about college- and career-readiness, and poor rankings on international tests — the broad stroke messages affecting perceptions of public education are everywhere.

Yet, U.S. graduation rates have never been higher according to America’s Promise Alliance, a group founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. And according to the Institute for Education Science, college attendance rates are projected to increase through 2022. Also consider this — PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), the test that compares students’ reading, math and science proficiency levels across countries (and has been used as proof that U.S. schools are failing), is actually negatively correlated to successful entrepreneurship in the career and business marketplace. In other words, the higher the PISA test score, the lower the level of entrepreneurial success, notes professor and author Yong Zhao in his new book World Class Learners.

Furthermore, the most recent PDK/Gallup Poll of the public’s attitudes toward public schools indicates that Americans still grade their local schools as an “A” or a “B” (a 20-year trend). Nationally, 56 percent of respondents felt that local school boards should have the greatest influence in deciding what should be taught in public schools.

Take Back the Conversation

These findings are bellwether, good news beacons for on-the-ground education practitioners, students, and parents alike. But as often occurs with good news, they get short shrift in the national media. In today’s environment, how can school leaders create their own broad-stroke messages at the local level to share the positive news? How can districts move past all the hoopla surrounding Common Core, Annual Professional Performance Review, and Race to the Top to support and grow their constituencies’ deep-rooted belief in the value of their local schools? The answer is in your core value.

Consider the following four strategies to take back the conversation by emphasizing your district’s core value:

Consult Your Compass

  • Anchor Motto. What is your school district’s core value? Obviously, an organization’s raison d’être is summarized in its mission statement. For school districts, these may be wordy and full of jargon. By tickling out a mission statement’s key action words — “inspiring,” “providing,” “building” — you can create a concise, meaningful anchor motto.

  • Elevator conversation. What would you tell someone asking about your school district if you had only the duration of an elevator ride? Time is everyone’s most precious commodity. A brief summation ready on the tip of the tongue piques interest and lays the foundation for core value storytelling.

  • Your “true north.” We suggest that you collaborate with a small group to closely read your school district’s mission statement and find its “true north.” With all the changes imposed on public education in the past decade, a freshening of the mission statement and/or an existing motto could be a board of education/superintendent/community initiative well worth the time spent.

Tell Your Story

  • Making Parent Communication Effective and Easy
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    “Sticky” messages. Sharing the everyday miracles that happen at the classroom, school and district level has never been more important. Storytelling is one component that makes a message lasting or “sticky”; provides meaning and context; is valued in innovation and business; and is an important quality for entrepreneurs. “Words matter,” explains writer Austin Kleon in the recent New York Times bestseller Show Your Work! about how to get discovered. Telling stories about students’ successes — students who exemplify your district’s core value — draws in your audience and helps them to identify and bond with the very reason your district exists. Stories build interest, loyalty, history and emotional value.

  • The value of storytelling. To quantify the value of storytelling, social science researchers Glenn & Walker conducted a fascinating experiment in 2009-10. They purchased 100 insignificant objects from flea markets, thrift stores and yard sales (average $1.25 each), hired 100 writers to each make up a short story about one piece, and then placed the objects on eBay with a starting price of what the researchers paid for each object. They even explained that the stories were works of fiction. Their hypothesis: “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.” The result? The $128.74 of trinkets ended up bringing in $3,612.51 (the money went to the writers). By simply telling a story, they increased the value of the now “significant objects” by more than 2,700 percent!

  • Going viral. Libert & Tynski (2013)7 identified three components critical to making marketing campaigns and brands go viral. They posited that creating a compelling title, using strong emotional drivers, and striking the right emotional chords (especially curiosity, amazement, interest, astonishment, uncertainty and admiration), increases the likelihood of “viralability.”

    Similarly, Wharton School of Business Assistant Professor Jonah Berger tells us that finding and sharing the “inner remarkability” of something — its potential for being worthy of remark by being surprising, interesting, or novel — will shape and evolve a story over time through “word of mouth.” And this type of storytelling is the most effective and valued method of advertising.

    Asking and listening to students, teachers, parents and community members will reveal stories of personal triumph, achievement, and human interest. The emotional components of these stories can be highly effective in offsetting the broad stroke generalities being circulated about public education.

Create and Align Key Messages

Core value storytelling that positively impacts perceptions at the local level hinges on the alignment of key messages. Once developed, these “true north” messages can be disseminated by your district’s key communicators.

Core value graphic

  • Increasing the impact on stakeholders’ perceptions. We hypothesize that the higher the degree of alignment among key messages, the greater the impact on the public’s perception. Take the Common Core as an example. The messages surrounding the standards have topped the news periodically for the past several years. The new standards have become a lightning rod of controversy in the media, in political arenas and on soccer sidelines. As a quick exercise, what are your first thoughts when considering the new standards? Controversial? Political? Test-centric? Whether or not you agree with its validity, the goal of increasing college- and career-readiness so our students are more able to compete globally has been obscured by a flawed and hasty rollout. Perceptions are all over the map. There is little alignment between the messages and the public’s perception of the initiative.

  • Aiming at the right targets. Another consideration when crafting messages for the post-local educational culture is personal bias. Since everyone went to school, each person already has a reference point — a lens that filters and colors the messages received about education. Our constituencies may not interpret our messages as intended or they may modify them to complement existing points of view. An ongoing assessment of the misinterpretations and misunderstandings that can occur is important toward ensuring that messages are aimed at the right targets.

Align Your Visuals

  • Illustrations in your storybook. Imagery and visuals have a powerful, reinforcing impact on core value storytelling. Think of them as illustrations in your school district’s storybook. Photos, symbols, crests, logos, mascots, signage, colors and fonts all convey subtle hints as to what’s important to your organization.

  • Signage on the information highway. In an ever more “connected” society, your website is likely the most visible and enduring representation of your school district. It is your signage on the information highway, and its appearance and content speak volumes about your school district. The fact that most people spend 15 seconds or less when browsing a web page should influence what appears front-and-center on your site.

    Try this fun exercise with your small group: browse the web for three or four U.S. school district web pages. Spend 15 seconds, without scrolling, on a site. Hide the page, and ask your viewers to write down two or three words or phrases of their impressions. The responses you receive will help you to take a fresh look at your own site.

  • Other applications. Newsletters, calendars, district and school mailings, backpack flyers, posters, signage, even email signatures can contain mottos and logos that reinforce your district’s core value. Application is only limited by your team’s imagination.

Your Own Success Stories

Every school district has great stories to share, a mission statement, key communicators and a wealth of visuals. An ongoing small-group initiative can effectively overlay prevailing negative messages with your own stories of educational success. Your community already believes in your local schools, give them even more to cheer about!

The following are references and links for more information about data and studies cited in the second and third paragraphs of the story:


Robert Feirsen, Ph.D., is superintendent and Catherine Knight, Ph.D., is coordinator for public information for Garden City (N.Y.) Public Schools. Contact Catherine at KnightC@gcufsd.net.